Little Italy, India to Ash, Ash to ocean. Not an incantation but directions from my new home to the sea.
This evening was when I discovered that Ash Street leads to the bay. I saw a speck of gray water under gray sky and an old-fashioned ship like you see in glass bottles. I waited for a train to cross in front of me and then I walked up to the ship. In front of it, a fiberglass swordfish strained toward the sky.
Signs around Anthony’s proclaim it to be San Diego’s original seafood restaurant. It’s like a nautical McDonald’s—plastic baskets of fried fish, fried shrimp, fried scallops; a side of mac ‘n’ “krab” salad, plastic booths, ketchup that you pump into little paper cups. I sat at a table that had one chair at it. I looked out at seagulls and a lone sailboat. I dunked a battered shrimp in a cup of cocktail sauce and thought, “What an adventure.”
* * *
Things I saw tonight during my walk from the bay to Ash, and then home to India Street in Little Italy:
A toga party inside a bar. I first heard a man bellow, “Where’s your toga?” to someone else, then saw the fold-up blackboard outside that said, “Toga Party Tonight,” then saw people inside wearing togas.
Homeless people sleeping around the perimeter of an empty Ace pay parking lot. They were wrapped up in sheets and blankets like mummies. They had gone to bed early. Except some of them were awake, sitting up and chatty with passersby like me. One of them said hello and then, “We won’t bite you.” On my way home past them again, another one said, “Hello again” without surprise, as if he’d been expecting me to return.
A man whose eyes were unseen in the shadow beneath the bill of his cap, who said to me, “Hi sweetie,” and then, “Where you goin’?”
Fireworks reflected in the windows of a tall building. At first I only heard them. All of us felt the booms and knew the sound from the Fourth of July, but the buildings on both sides of the street kept the spectacle from us. I walked toward the sound and saw red sparks on glass, distorted but unmistakable. By the time I got to a clearing between buildings, the show was over.
A guy my age, a nice-seeming guy, reading a local newspaper at a table on the other side of the glass from where I sat inside a Starbucks. I wondered if I should take off my hoodie and sit there in the tight-fitting hot pink blouse I had on underneath, but I felt shy and left the hoodie on. I opened the New York Times to the Arts section and read a book review. I wondered if he was a writer, because sometimes people who hang out at Starbucks are. I wondered if he could see that I was reading a book review. I wondered if I was sitting there in an incandescent glow, if somehow it was apparent that I had come from far away to live here, that I had been through deserts and cornfields and Las Vegas to get here. When I finished the review, I looked out the window and saw that he was gone.
* * *
My favorite parts of the drive to here were the Mojave Desert and the road that leads into Moab, Utah.
The first night, I slept for an hour in my car in the parking lot of an AmericInn in Iowa City. I’d left DC at noon and was supposed to stop in Chicago, but Chicago came and I felt like going on. I grew sleepy while still in Illinois but wanted to make it across the Iowa border. Across the border, in Davenport, I tried to get to a Motel 6 but went the wrong way down a one-way street, got spooked, and drove on. A Comfort Inn farther down cost too much, and that AmericInn was all booked up. It was 4 a.m., so I thought I’d sleep till 5 then drive and watch the sun rise over the corn. I was already on the road when I realized that I was in a new time zone, and the sun wouldn’t light the cornfields for a long time.
In Nebraska, I got a second wind. The flatness was exotic to me. Nebraska turned to cowboy country on the way into Colorado. At the Colorado Welcome Center, a woman sweeping the ladies’ room watched me put on make-up and asked me questions and wished me all the best in my new life. “If you come through here again, be sure to say hi.”
In Denver, I met up with a friend who lives there. We ate dinner just outside town, in Golden. We had a view of the Coors factory, although my friend won’t order Coors. It’s pumped out in abundance, cheaply, in plain sight, and the locals will order something else.
After dinner we drove up a mountain to look down at Denver at night. In his truck, he caressed my thigh as he steered us up twisting roads. When we got out at the top, he asked if I could feel the high-altitude air in my lungs. I wasn’t sure that I could really feel it, but he’d asked it rhetorically and with pride, so I said yes.
It was his idea that I go to Moab. He mapped my entire route for me and planned all the scenic detours.
He had talked briefly of living in California, too, and then he changed his mind. By the time he had changed his mind I already had a home lined up there, in the rented guest room of a druggie guy in San Diego's Little Italy. Not moving to California was his subtle way of letting me know he was cutting off the chance of a life with me. Neither of us was ever much for confrontations.
* * *
His directions were a little wrong only once, when it came to the part about which exit to take off I-70 for Moab. The directions said Exit 202, but it was Exit 204. The road leading to Moab was Highway 128. On this road I was more alone than I’d ever been. I pulled over and took photos to prove how alone I’d been, using my camera’s self-timer. In one photo I’m sitting in the middle of the highway, right on the double yellow line, waving. In another, I’m leaping with joy in front of the emptiest landscape I’d ever seen. I jumped so high that my head went out of the frame. I didn’t delete the photo; it was a mistake but it was better than what I’d had in mind.
A few days later, I met my Denver friend again in Vegas. He was there for a wedding; we’d timed my trip to coincide with this. Then I drove through the Mojave Desert and discovered a new universe of alone.
Outside the desert, I came to Amboy, which looks from the map like it will be a town but is a cluster of three or four trailers. There was a place with a huge sign that said “Roy’s CAFÉ.” Craving a sandwich and possibly an iced mocha coffee, I pulled up to an antiquated gas pump and went into the nearby office. Inside was a man who was tanned and had bright blue eyes. There was no food—you had to have a license to sell that, and they didn’t—and all he had to drink was bottled water or Pepsi from a chained-up vending machine out by the restrooms. The man chatted: about how he volunteered to come out here three or four days a week, how there’d been a storm the other night and how lightning in the desert is pretty, how today there was a slight wind and that was good because “it breaks up the monotony.”
* * *
I have lived my whole life on the East Coast until now; to me, palm trees and sparkling Pacific Ocean and year-round sunshine are things in paradise, not in real life. In my old life, I would think of these things as postcard images and in terms of “someday.” It was all abstract, like Heaven. It was something you strived for but never reached. There was strange comfort in the idea of never reaching it; that way, there was always something to strive for. What do you do after you’ve reached paradise? Stagnate, or go back?
It only became real because things fell into place. The 10-year relationship with my unemployed manic-depressive boyfriend ended, not because he was unemployed or manic depressive but because I didn’t want to continue cheating on him.
People told me I was strong for ending it, but they all thought I ended it for the obvious reasons. Breaking up with him didn’t feel like something I did; it was because of something I wanted to stop doing.
My friend who lives in Denver is adventurous and travels a lot. We talk about how we both want lives that are “experientially rich.” I think that to him this means breadth, while to me it means depth; maybe this makes us ultimately incompatible, or maybe it makes us a perfect yin-yang.
After I got laid off from the global company we both worked for—he works from Denver, I worked from DC—I did it. I found an online posting from a young engineer with a room for rent in Little Italy. I sent him witty e-mails. I got the room. I left nearly all of my furniture for the young family I found to live in my apartment. When I went into the apartment a few days after they’d moved in, to help carry boxes from their truck before going with them to the Comcast office to transfer my cable account to them, I saw that their little girls had laid dolls and stuffed animals all over the couch on which my ex used to sleep. We never slept together in my bed, although I would sometimes—on rare and desperate nights—hint for him to join me in bed, right up until very near the end. “I snore,” he’d say. “I’d keep you awake.”
I hadn’t wanted to make love; that’s not why I’d hinted for him to join me.
My ex doesn’t know I’m here. How do you tell someone that you drove across a continent to get away from the life you had with him?
* * *
That thing about real life being stranger than fiction – that’s only part of it. It’s stranger, and more convoluted, and much happens that means nothing. It slumps and spurts in irregular patterns. There are moments that shimmer and months of sleepwalking.
Years of sleepwalking. A lifetime of sleepwalking if you’re not careful.
* * *
One of the strange stories of my real life goes like this: I had an affair with the father of my first-ever boyfriend, whom I’d dated when we were 13. I had the affair with the father when I was 27. The father is 24 years older than I am and is an English professor and haiku scholar who lives in New Orleans. I was in a relationship with my manic-depressive ex at the time, and the professor was in a relationship with a woman his age who is slowly dying of cystic fibrosis, a woman to whom he claims he is more of a caretaker than a lover, although this is probably to assuage his guilt. One time when I visited the professor we went to a Bourbon Street strip club where he was a regular and where one of the girls greeted him by name. It’d been my idea to go into the strip club, thinking he’d think that was enlightened and sexy of me, trying to impress him. At one point, upon returning from the restroom, I found myself slumped on the floor in the back of the club, drunk and crying, watching him watch the girls onstage, watching him want them.
I’m ashamed of it all now, but sometimes I think of phrases like “English professor” and “Bourbon Street strip club” and I feel stupidly glamorous, or at least that my life has been experientially rich.
Today after calling my mother twice, my father, brother, and sister once each, and leaving a tentative text message for my friend in Denver, I called the professor. He was happy to hear from me—this past summer he worked on a new novel, a “love story” about two characters based on us except it takes place in ancient Japan.
He told me he doesn’t want to publish it while his girlfriend is still alive, so he put the manuscript of our story in a drawer, and he closed the drawer.
* * *
Daniel rattled off a list of all the stuff that goes into a hurricane, the mixed drink he’s going to make me sometime. Daniel is the guy whose room I’m living in now. In his kitchen he has more booze than food. Not wine but heavy-duty stuff, like Jagermeister and whiskey and Russian vodka, plus an idiosyncrasy: a bottle of butterscotch schnapps. The bottles are in a row, on display on the counter beneath an inset light, like a sinner’s version of a spice rack.
It’ll happen. One night—maybe this weekend—we’ll tire of the awkward, polite stranger routine here in this small space, and he’ll offer to make me the drink, and I’ll accept. I’ll drink it too fast, wanting it to work quickly, wanting it to warm me and open me up until I’m light and loose and generous. I’ll drink another, and maybe another. I’ll laugh too hard, a madwoman’s cackle. I’ll do that thing I always do, joke about how I need music because I gotta dance! I’ll be hyper and silly, and I pray that it stops there. I pray that it stops there and doesn’t go on, into me dancing “sexy,” into puking, into crying confessions on the bathroom floor, into calling people I shouldn’t call especially at that hour, into an episode like the ones I had first with the professor, later with my friend who lives in Denver.
I’ll drink his hurricane. It’s an inevitability.
* * *
I don’t know yet if this is heroic or escapist.
Things that happened to me this afternoon when I walked from home to Ash to Fourth Avenue downtown:
Before turning at the corner with the Scientology church on it, a weathered man smoking a cigarette said to me: “Love the chapeau.” He meant my white canvas hat, which I always wear in the sun. He seemed sincere. I liked that he used the French word.
At another street corner a man handed me a tiny religious tract and seemed almost apologetic about it. Sure enough, the text began in supplication: “Please do not resent us for giving you this tract. We love your soul, and we want to tell you that if you have never been born again, you are on your journey to a place where you will burn forever and ever.” And ever, because forever isn’t shocking enough.
The timing for me to receive this tract was perfect; I felt hell-bound. I was on my way to a pawn shop on the next block to sell the ring my grandmother gave me. It doesn’t fit; it’s a tiny flower made of sapphire chips, because sapphire is our birthstone. I got 25 bucks for it. I spent five of those on a drink at a nearby Starbucks. I might have kept the ring to pass down to my daughter or daughter-in-law or granddaughter, if a family were something I planned to have. I was planning to have one, until I met my friend who lives in Denver, and he convinced me that a family was unnecessary and could even be a burden, something that cramps your style.
My ex, the one who is manic depressive and still unemployed, wants a family with me. He hopes our separation is temporary. I’ve talked to him on the phone a few times from here; he thinks I’m still in DC. I hear his sweet familiar voice, and suddenly I’m back in our old apartment that’s full of clutter and stagnant air. I picture him at home with his parents where he’s lived since I broke up with him, where he surfs the Internet and reads comic books all day, and I never want to go back even just to visit.
* * *
On Friday night of my first week here, I called an old friend who lives in town and left a message saying I’d love to get together, that my schedule was wide open. Daniel wasn’t home from work yet; he must have gone out with friends afterward. I stood in the apartment wearing a black miniskirt and a new top my mom bought me just before I left. I’d straightened my hair and put on make-up. I walked from my room to the kitchen, looking at the dark living room, a wall clock ticking above the silent, turned-off TV.
In the glow coming from where the bottles of booze sit in the kitchen, a plastic Elmo toy phone lay on the counter. I’d found it under my bed when rearranging the furniture in my room. Daniel said, “I thought I got rid of all that stuff from when my kid was staying here.” He didn’t say anything else. The clock ticked, and I stood there looking at the toy that should have been gone with all the other remnants of past and family.
* * *
In the Starbucks where I bought myself a drink with the money from my grandmother’s ring, I saw a girl and a guy in seats near the window. Before getting up to get their drinks, the girl pressed her hand to the back of the guy’s neck and stroked upward, running her fingers through the short hair at the base of his skull. Her gesture was casual, affectionate, mindless, tender enough to bring tears to my eyes as I thought about how I love to do that to my friend who lives in Denver.
In Vegas, we met up with his Australian friend who was getting married and some people the Australian guy knew. When my friend and I approached the group at a casino before heading out to a bar together, one of them, a middle-aged woman who’d already drunk several beers, asked if my friend and I were married. I laughed, but my friend didn’t. Everyone told her “No, no!” and some of us tried to joke away the awkwardness. Whenever he introduced me to someone in Vegas, he said: “This is my friend… This is my friend…”
One night in bed, after making love, my friend who lives in Denver went to the bathroom and got a mouthful of water. He climbed over me in bed and pressed his mouth to mine, slowly feeding me water. Like a baby animal, I instinctively knew what to do, to open my mouth and take a little at a time, although I had never even heard of someone doing that before. He laughed afterward and said, “I just thought you might be thirsty.” I would do anything he wanted me to, and he knew that.
Another night, falling asleep, his arms were under me and over me, his body draped all around me, my arms twined around one of his. One of my arms tingled, the loss of blood circulation replaced by electric prickles until it went numb, and when I moved that arm or hand I couldn’t tell where my body ended and his began. I would have lost a part of myself for him, gladly.
Maybe to him it means depth, too.
Before I came out here, I’d had this image in mind of what it would be like when I finally reached the Pacific Ocean. I saw myself standing triumphant on a beach, wind whipping my hair, sunlight sparkling, blue sea crashing. Instead I got an overcast day, gray water and sky, no beach but a place that sells cheap fried seafood by the bay. One plastic chair at a table and a basket of battered shrimp. It’s different, but I’ll take it. It’s different, but I love it.